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Your AVQ&A on third-act failures was great. I feel like 25 percent of movies I see are two-thirds great, then fall off at the end. I was wondering about the opposite; what are some examples of third-act triumphs where the ending of a film exceeds its buildup? The example that comes to my mind is The 25th Hour, a film that gets better and better up through its final scene. Any thoughts? —Andy
I lucked out on this one, in that I just saw one that fits the bill: Toy Story 3, which starts with a bang, then becomes more of a standard action kids’ film, with a lot of dashing about and amiable goofery that left me not as intrigued as most Pixar films. Then the ending shocked me out of my complacency, and took advantage of my shock to open me up to some incredibly sweet business that I might not have accepted had it happened early in the film. Honestly, I’d say Pixar movies in general excel at the third-act triumph—particularly WALL-E and The Incredibles, which start off energetic and just keep building, and Ratatouille, which has its biggest triumph in the end, when Anton Ego delivers his soliloquy about the purpose of criticism. But lest y’all think that all I watch is cartoons… one of my biggest movie-end pleasures of all time was John Sayles’ Lone Star, where I thought the first half was slow and unstructured, and then the rest of the movie is about putting all the threads together, such that they have more and more emotional impact as the story continues. It all comes together beautifully in the end. I tend to think the best films do that, leaving viewers staggering out into the light, stunned and still trying to process it all.
It’s hard to think of many movies that start out bad and stay there until the end; even if they dramatically improve in the third act, who’s still watching after an hour of suck? A lot of movies, though, start out well enough, but slowly develop into something great. The first one that comes to mind, for me, is Blade Runner. Though I know of people who think just the opposite—that it starts out good and sinks into a pretentious morass in the end—for me, its third act takes it from engaging and thoughtful to downright transcendental. That’s when what was previously an intriguing science-fiction noir transforms into a deeply meaningful movie of ideas, when it stops batting at the philosophical implications of its story and pounces on them like a big cat that’s finally ready to gut its prey. It would have been a very good movie regardless, but the ambitious directing, depth of story, and force of acting that kicks into gear roughly from the time Roy Batty visits the Tyrell Corporation to the high-rise roof, where all his knowledge is instantly washed away, turns it into something great.
I’ve been shocked by a couple of A.V. Club commenters recently who’ve complained about the last 20 minutes of There Will Be Blood, because Jesus Christ in heaven, how much better could the ending of that movie be? And just to be clear, I’m not complaining about the hours that lead up to it—I think it’s brilliant front to back. But I love the fact that Paul Thomas Anderson is able to offer such a bizarre, violent, and perfect resolution for these characters—and he can do it with the potentially cheesy jump forward in time. It’s perfect, because it’s tonally so in keeping with the rest of the film, and yet able to deliver the end of an epic story with a fairly nice bow: Daniel Day-Lewis’ son is hurt, but able to move on; Paul Dano gets the humiliation he loved to dole out to others; and Day-Lewis finally goes off the deep end completely. (And presumably goes to jail.) Oh yeah, spoiler alert. But if you haven’t seen it already, you’re crazy!
Listen, I knew what was coming in Audition. Scott talked about it, my wife had seen it, and Robert Ben Garant mentioned it in his guest list for the Inventory book. Still, the film lulled me into complacency with a patently silly rom-com premise—widower sets up fraudulent acting auditions to meet his soulmate!—and then proceeded to rip my fucking guts out. Sure, you wouldn’t think something with a goofy montage of women auditioning would be the kind of film that later has a gimp eating vomit, but you’d be wrong. (I watched it with Emily Withrow and her husband, who protected her sensitivities by shouting “Don’t look, Emily!” during the bad stuff.) It could be argued that Audition is two very different films, stitched to each other like some freakish set of conjoined twins, but neither part would be as successful on its own. Together they… not make sense, per se, but work in a kind of Lynchian, torture-porny way. I was falling asleep during the first two-thirds, but wide awake for the last part.
I’ll follow up Kyle and name two more Takashi Miike films, Dead Or Alive and Gozu. I saw both at film festivals, at midnight shows, and after the audience half-dozed through the usual 90 minutes or so of Miike-ian surrealism and longueurs, they woke up with a start at the end, when Miike really pulls out the stops. In Gozu, which is all about gender roles and masculine violence, the last 20 minutes features a mob boss who gets erect when he shoves a ladle up his rectum (though it accidentally gets shoved in too far and then electrified, such that he dies as he ejaculates) and a low-level thug who experiences wrenching pain while he’s having sex because the woman he’s screwing has a full-grown man inside her womb, yanking on the gangster’s penis. Dead Or Alive is even more nutzoid, ending with a mob standoff that escalates, Looney Tunes-style, until the last men standing are pulling out nuclear rocket launchers. Now every time I’m stuck watching a dreary drama at a festival, I silently pray for a DOA ending.
I think most of the movies I love have great endings—I get a huge kick out of a story that sets up all kinds of pieces, then finds a way to fit them together that creates an unexpected, but still organically derived, result. The Coen brothers do terrific third acts, like the finale of No Country For Old Men that refuses to give us what we think we wanted, and shows that what we thought was the main plot was something else entirely. Or how about their last film, A Serious Man? After 100 minutes of what looks like nothing more than a series of semi-related comic sequences, we get a final conversation, and a final shot, that manages to state the central thesis in clear terms without being pedantic. (Miller’s Crossing is also perfect this way.) For me, though, the best example of that clicking sensation that happens in my mind when I finally figure out what’s happening, is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Nolan is generally very good at pulling threads together for the finale (I’d say Batman Begins is the only time he really screwed the pooch in the third act, and I tend to blame that on David Goyer, just because I can), but while I don’t think Dark Knight is my absolute favorite of his movies (that’s probably Memento or The Prestige), the ending blew me away the first time I saw it. I spent most of the movie digging what I was seeing; loving the pacing, the confidence in the storytelling that was light-years beyond the solid-but-traditional Begins; digging Heath Ledger’s performance; but not really sure what the point of any of it was. I didn’t doubt the movie had a point, but I slowly realized that everything was building toward some sort of conclusion that I couldn’t really predict. That’s a terrific experience, and even better was Gordon’s final speech as Batman flees from the cops. Yeah, I know it’s on-the-nose, and I can see someone finding it corny, but I felt like Nolan was painting in such broad strokes that it didn’t matter. I still haven’t entirely put together my impressions of Knight, but I felt that the ending richly justified the buildup, and made an already entertaining ride something richer and longer lasting.
I’m picking not just one film, but two where I thought the ending made everything else look better in retrospect. It’s not that I didn’t like the entirety of Kill Bill before it got to the scenes where Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo finally finds the elusive Bill. Indeed, I found it a well-executed genre piece, full of terrific sequences and solid character work. But while the movies would occasionally interest me on a level deeper than “That was cool!”, I spent much of them looking for some of the weird spirituality Quentin Tarantino inserts into his films. Well, I got most of what I wanted from the climax of the second film, where Thurman and David Carradine reduced the whole of the film’s epic action quest to a few scenes between two people who just couldn’t stop hating each other. Distilling it that way makes it seem rather silly, but in Tarantino’s hands, it became something mythic, and it retroactively graced the rest of the saga with a heightened sense of purpose.
I really enjoyed the 2008 film The Promotion for the surprisingly strange yet uplifting turn at the end. In the movie, John C. Reilly and Seann William Scott battle over a promotion to manager of a Chicago grocery store. Both characters are sad sacks in their own way, dealing with insane customers and yearning with painful earnestness for said job. I rooted for them both, yet cringed (especially at Reilly, who can pull off hangdog like no one else) at how pathetic both their lives have gotten. Based on the increasingly pitiful ways they try to sabotage and outdo each other, the movie seems to be heading toward a lose-lose finale, especially as Reilly’s character slips back into a drug problem. I loved that both characters find a little redemption, but more importantly, the way Scott celebrates the good news he receives at the end of the movie was such a pleasant, bizarre, delightful surprise, it pretty much sealed the entire movie for me.
Third acts don’t come much more auspicious or overpowering than the thrilling climax to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. The whole film is brilliant, but the piece de resistance (that’s French for “fancy bullshit phrase” is a third act in which the titular aggregation of outlaws, gunslingers, criminals, and all-around bad dudes finally find a cause more noble than the quest for stolen loot, and engage in a suicidal gun battle with the minions of a sinister Mexican warlord after he kills their friend. What follows is a glorious slow-motion symphony of violence that raised the stakes for onscreen bloodshed and today represents the gold standard by which all other shootouts can be judged.